How We Teach Writing (Part II): Empirical Evidence on Removing the Teacher and The Invictus Writers Project

Three years ago, I started The Invictus Writers project for two reasons:

  1. While my professional background is largely in long-form and magazine writing, I’m quite often considered a “tech guy” wherever I go. If I want the opportunity to work with young writers, I generally have to create those; and
  2. I find classrooms to be a highly restrictive way to teach writing, which is a collaborative art that requires as much individual attention as it does group workshopping.

I’ve started writing a series on pedagogy that explores how I’m approaching that second problem in more traditional settings. You can read the first part of the series here, and the second part here.

While there is more writing on that topic, there is an assumption within that series that suggests creating a public space for student work is necessary to increase student involvement.

The Invictus Writers project was conceptualized precisely as a way to remove the teacher as the primary motivator, and replace that with “the audience” as primary motivator. That required the project to have as many front-facing, student-led initiatives as possible. For Invictus, we have two:

  1. The Invictus Writers blog, where I ask (not demand) the participants to write about the writing process. They are asked to share their fears, uncertainties, and successes as they work on the project; and
  2. The Invictus Essays and Books, where the final student work is given to readers in a variety of formats, i.e. ePub, free PDFs, print book.

I don’t have any empirical evidence to suggest that my writing project is a success. I don’t give grades (and only once was this taught as a class), I don’t solicit formal feedback, I don’t have an alumni association, and I don’t have an advisory board. I have writers who write, and who share their knowledge and process with the world through the blog and through private letters within the group.

The only empirical evidence to suggest that we’ve successfully created an audience are the metrics I’ve cobbled together.

The Invictus Writers blog

In the past three years, we’ve generated just a touch more than 26,000 page views from visitors who have read posts from each of the three groups.

[table]Year,Book,Total Reads
2011,If Leave Here Tomorrow,6552
2012,Gently Used,4783
2013,Damaged Goods,4757

Since I added Google Analytics in Year 2, we’ve had more than 5,000 individual readers who spend 3:04 seconds per visit, and read 2.62 pages.

The Scribd Essays

We don’t just blog about the writing process. The group also publishes its work in both print and digital forms. While we rarely sell more than 50-75 books, we certainly reach far more people than that.

We house our essays at Scribd, which has a basic statistical tracking mechanism. In three years, The Invictus Writers’ essays have been read more than 18,000 times.

[table]Title,Total Reads,Reads,Embedded Reads,Readcasts
If I Leave Here Tomorrow: Ugly Little Monster,1494,1493,1,0
If I Leave Here Tomorrow: Filling Empty Spaces,1468,1447,21,2
If I Leave Here Tomorrow: Waystation,1369,1368,1,6
If I Leave Here Tomorrow: Introduction,1163,1163,0,6
If I Leave Here Tomorrow: Pathways,1042,1018,24,1
If I Leave Here Tomorrow: Blessed Be The Ties That Bind,1020,1020,0,4
Gently Used: Starving the Host,1002,1000,2,15
If I Leave Here Tomorrow: The City That Stopped The Cynic,974,973,1,5
If I Leave Here Tomorrow: Foreword,876,876,0,6
Gently Used: The Good Life,832,832,0,3
Gently Used: My Summer in the Gutter,648,648,0,4
Gently Used: Where Suns Collide,618,618,0,9
Gently Used: Rythms,498,498,0,5
Gently Used: The Wall That Jimmy Built,459,459,0,4
Damaged Goods: The Long War,253,253,0,0
Gently Used: Introduction,246,246,0,5
Gently Used: About,238,238,0,4
Damaged Goods: The Road to Surrender,157,157,0,0
Damaged Goods: It’s Like the Weather,53,53,0,0
Total, 18830,18744,86,111[/table]

What It All Means

Anyone who works with digital products knows that metrics can be a poor way to make a decision unless you have triangulated the qualitative information with the quantitative numbers. Rarely do simple metrics give you enough to go on when you’re making a single, specific decision.

In this case, the numbers do provide a hint that we’re heading in the right direction at least with our audience.

We’ve carved out a small niche on the Internet, and the students have made it their own. I don’t edit their blogs, alumni continue to have access to the publishing tools, and the books are written, copy edited, and designed by each group.

Certainly I guide them in the writing process, I help them figure out what questions to ask, and sometimes I point them towards an answer.

For all intents and purposes, however, this is the most Constructivist experience that I’ve created…and it exists largely outside of the traditional classroom experience.

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